Climate change is one of the defining problems of our era. As a student of the degree programme in international development at University College Cork, I became interested in the social and economic factors that contribute to climate vulnerability – poorer ‘developing’ countries are already suffering the impacts of climate change far more than their richer neighbours.

When the time came to undertake a six-month work placement as part of the course, I went to Bolivia to work for a social justice organisation called The Democracy Center. The Center has a long history of transmitting Bolivian experiences to a global audience, for example on Bolivia’s struggle against globalization. More recently, the Center has begun to transmit stories of the Bolivian experiences of climate change.

Bolivia and climate impacts

Bolivia is a geographically diverse country that spans high-altitude mountains and low-level tropics, and as such has been dubbed as a ‘frontline’ of climate change for many years. This geographical vulnerability is only compounded by social and economic vulnerability – poorer countries like Bolivia simply do not have access to the economic resources to deal with climate change that richer countries do.

“Poorer countries like Bolivia simply do not have access to the economic resources to deal with climate change that richer countries do”

Stories of community resilience

I spent a week living with a family in a small indigenous community, Lanqaya, at 4,000 metres above sea level in the department of Norte Potosí. People have been living in this community since around 1915, when two abuelos (‘grandfathers’), moved here from the mines and started farms and families. Now, there are about 40 families in adobe homes, spread widely along a steep valley. The majority of the Bolivia population lives in the Andean region, often in farming communities like this one. And in Lanqaya, like in most of rural Bolivia, people’s survival depends on their livestock and crops to an extent that would be very unfamiliar to most urban people in the ‘developed’ economies.

The purpose of the trip was to gain a picture of community resilience to climate change in Bolivia. We saw resilience as the ability of the community to deal with changes in their environment and circumstances and still retain their customs, identity and structure. And we knew that Norte Potosí, with its high altitude, and people’s dependence on rain-fed agriculture to survive, is one of the world’s hotspots of climate vulnerability.

On our first day, our hostess Doña Pascuala was off to make ‘chuño’ (pronounced chun-yo) – the traditional dehydrated potato that is the staple of this region. It is made by laying small potatoes out to freeze overnight, compressing the water out with your feet, and then drying them in the sun. They look like small dark wrinkly pebbles. Chuño features in many of the meals, and is a key piece in the jigsaw of resilience, as a form of insurance – a staple that can be stored for long periods is important. Chuño is a source of food, or currency, when times are hard. Its production is being increasingly affected by warming temperatures.

“We saw resilience as the ability of the community to deal with changes in their environment and circumstances and still retain their customs, identity and structure”

People told us their experiences of changes in the local weather. The elders had the longest visions: “When I was young, it rained in its time, it froze in its time; now it rains or freezes anytime, it’s all completely changing.” And it also affects the chuño, so crucial in this community: “It used to take only a few nights to freeze enough to make good chuño, and now it can take a few weeks.”

We found out that the entire community of Lanqaya has migrated in stages from lower altitude valleys to the higher slopes where they are now based. The move was to access new pastures and lower night temperatures for making chuño – the warmer winters meant these valleys lacked the frost needed for successful chuño production.

This story struck me as an important one. This community had managed to deal with the effects of climate change by using their ancient democratic decision-making structures to change the location of the community. This strong cohesion is something that many communities in the North lack, though they may be rich in monetary resources.

The impressive capacity of Lanqaya’s people to deal with change doesn’t mean they are endlessly adaptable.  The community’s survival up to now has depended on its move to higher slopes. The next phase is crucial: the frost is needed for making chuño, and there’s nowhere higher and colder left to move nearby. The possible future loss of chuño is a serious one for Andean communities, and being able to grow a staple crop with similar storage capacity will be make or break for their survival.

Building solidarity through education

My experience in Bolivia, allowing me to glimpse a view of a country that is a ground zero for climate change, only reinforced for me that standing in solidarity with our southern neighbours is an essential part of building an effective global climate movement. Although it is incredibly valuable to meet people face-to-face and learn about their experiences of climate change first hand, there are many aspects of climate activism that do not involve global travel.

The Democracy Center is currently in the process of launching a project revolving around the international climate movement, using the UN climate conference, COP20, in Peru, as a hook. The Center has interviewed climate activists from around the world on their best thinking on effective strategies for strengthening the climate movement. The project is on-going and open to contributions so get in touch if you’d like to know more or get involved.

Other ways to get involved at home include the growing fossil fuel divestment campaign, which has been highly successful in universities across the US and Europe; getting involved with Irish youth climate justice groups like Young Friends of the Earth, or using online resources such as this climate journalism course to help you write about climate change issues in your college publications. But an important part of nurturing South-North solidarity is making links with real people. That can begin in the classroom and can be much enhanced by digital connectivity. A project that can facilitate this is the microsite Climate Change is About…Water , of which the Climate Classroom section provides a space for this solidarity to flourish.

Author: Sian Cowman

Sian Cowman is an Irish environmental activist and writer. Now that she’s finished her degree in International Development at UCC, she’s returning to Bolivia to continue her work with The Democracy Center. You can get in touch with her at or follow her on Twitter @flautify.

Photo credit: Homestead in Lancay, Bolivia, Sian Cowman

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